‘It’s going to explode’: young Palestinians look to the gun amid Israeli offensive

Bethan McKernan & Sufian Taha

The Guardian  /  September 21, 2022

Israel’s Operation Breakwater aims to reduce the enemy’s ability to attack, but seems to be galvanising a new generation of fighters.

There is almost nothing left of the Ottoman-era house in the old city of Nablus where Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, an 18-year-old fighter with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, made his final stand against the Israeli army.

Every inch of the remaining walls and ceiling is pockmarked by bullet holes; witnesses said that after a gun battle lasting hours, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) used shoulder-launched rockets to blast open the metal doors. The missiles brought down heavy stonework that crushed the immensely popular young “Lion of Nablus”, wanted for shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Nabulsi and two others were killed and 40 more people were injured in the massive 9 August raid, part of Operation Breakwater, a six-month-old campaign of near-nightly IDF sorties, arrests, targeted killings and house demolitions across the occupied West Bank. Designed to flush out militants from al-Aqsa, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the offensive has evolved into one of the biggest Israeli military operations outside wartime for decades.

“There were arrests last night. It’s not safe to go outside at night, you’ll get shot, like I was last year,” said Ali Rafik Sabah, 56, a restaurant owner in the Balata refugee camp on the city’s outskirts, who lifted up his shirt to show two glassy scars on his torso during The Guardian’s visit last week.

“This is a desperate place. Every young man here has a gun, and these attacks just make them more determined to fight back.”

Operation Breakwater was launched this spring in response to one of the deadliest waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel in years. According to the Palestinian health ministry, this year so far 98 Palestinians – mostly armed men, but also many civilians – have been killed across the West Bank, a seven-year record. In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, a surprise three-day Israeli bombing campaign in August led to the deaths of another 51 Palestinians, including 17 children.

This Israeli strategy of attrition known as “mowing the grass” has two goals: diminishing the enemy’s ability to attack, and temporary deterrence. But rather than quashing Palestinian armed resistance, Operation Breakwater appears to be fueling more violence in the West Bank – and galvanizing a new generation of fighters.

Two new armed groups have emerged over the last few months – the Nablus Brigade and the Tubas Brigade – and organized armed resistance has been steadily growing since the unrest in Jerusalem last May that culminated in an 11-day-war in Gaza and scenes of intercommunal violence on Israel’s streets.

“The Israelis call us terrorists, but throwing stones is not enough when they have guns. We need guns too to protect ourselves,” said 17-year-old Mustafa, a regular visitor to the Yafa youth centre in Balata.

His friend Mahmoud, 21, added: “Our generation is not like our parents. They had to leave their homes, they were afraid. They saw the peace process [in the 1990s], maybe they still believe peace is possible.

“For us, we don’t think peace is going to happen. The only solution is to fight.”

In a statement, the IDF said “counterterrorism activity is based on precise intelligence and ongoing situational assessments. In certain instances, intense exchanges of fire developed between IDF forces and terrorist operatives… It should be noted that security forces use live fire only after all other options are exhausted”.

Nablus, an ancient town in the north of the West Bank situated in a valley between two mountains, has long been a centre of Palestinian political activism. It witnessed some of the worst violence of the second intifada; Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group associated with Fatah, which is the ruling power of the Palestinian Authority (PA), came into being in 2000 amid the poverty of the Balata camp.

The group, designated as a terrorist organization by Israel and its western allies, agreed to disband and give up its weapons in a 2007 agreement brokered by the PA. In response to continuing IDF and settler attacks, however, it has rearmed and attracted young new recruits in recent years. While its command structure is secretive, al-Aqsa now appears to operate independently of Fatah in both Nablus and nearby Jenin, another restive city.

Since Operation Breakwater began, it has become clear that Al-Aqsa is engaging in new, closer cooperation with other militias, such as Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigade, to repel the intensifying Israeli operation.

The mood in Nablus is tense and defiant. The city’s walls are covered in posters of dead fighters and civilians, and children wear necklaces featuring pictures of their killed friends. The IDF has said it is considering using armed drones in the West Bank for the first time, adding to the sense that worse is yet to come.

Nabulsi’s destroyed safe house has become something of a pilgrimage site: a steady stream of people come each day to see the place the Lion of Nablus was defeated, taking photographs and leaving flowers. Fearful of spies, the militants have begun blocking foreigners from entering the old city, as well as the sprawling Balata camp.

The PA, which is widely viewed across Palestinian society as colluding with Israel to repress both armed and non-violent resistance, has next to no power here. Fatah itself is also increasingly split between factions loyal to the PA’s ageing and deeply unpopular president, Mahmoud Abbas, and those who believe he has failed to deliver any meaningful progress. Oppressive rule and rampant corruption have also eroded the Palestinian people’s trust in their leaders.

For many in the city, the raid that killed Nabulsi, allegedly with the help of the PA’s security forces, may prove to be a watershed moment. The killing of a 53-year-old male civilian on Tuesday during clashes between the PA’s security forces and Al-Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, has amplified hostility towards the West Bank authority.

“Fatah, Hamas – they have not solved our problems. They don’t appeal to young people; we don’t feel like we belong to those movements. We need a different way of doing things,” Mahmoud said. “If we don’t defend our country, who will?”

According to Dr Hanan Ashrawi, a civil society activist and former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, last year’s cancelled PA elections – which would have been the first since 2006 – calcified the new generation’s belief that “the political system is not fit for purpose”.

“There are young people who would gladly enter the political arena, roll up their sleeves and make a difference, but last year the door was slammed shut. They are angry and more militant because they have seen nothing but bloodshed and pain. There is a feeling of hopelessness,” she said.

The Yafa centre’s manager, Fayez Arafat, has struggled for years to keep teenagers and young people away from the militias and gangsters who rule the camp, providing activities and workshops that are a much-needed respite from the slum-like conditions.

The area, however, is awash with firearms smuggled from neighbouring Jordan and stolen from IDF bases. Arafat estimates unemployment is running at about 70%, and about half of the camp’s 30,000 residents are under 18, making his job harder than ever.

“If the Israelis left us alone, maybe things could change. But in conditions like this, collective punishment, it is inevitable it is going to explode. I think the Israelis want it to be like this,” he said.

“My son is 33 and he decided just a few months ago to join Islamic Jihad. Why is that? It’s a result of the terrible things he has experienced living here. He felt there was no other option.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

 Sufian Taha in Nablus